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Agronomy facility gets initial nod: Variance, CUP recommended to town board

Scott McKay with CHS Prairie Lakes explains the company’s plans for an agronomy facility Thursday to Todd Township residents Cliff and Marilyn Branham and Norm and Betty Renes, while general manager Brad Manderschied and local facility manager Todd Riedel stand by. (Photos by Robin Fish/Enterprise)1 / 2
McKay presented this early conceptual drawing of the type of facility CHS Prairie Lakes wants to build in the Portage Lake area of Todd Township. The fertilizer warehouse is the large building at left. The receiving tower is mostly hidden behind it. The blending tour is at the center, and the feed and seed warehouse is at right.2 / 2

Two hearings on Thursday night marked progress in CHS Prairie Lakes' plan to build a new agronomy facility in Todd Township.

At both hearings, CHS requests were questioned by residents of the area near Portage Lake, but township officials recommended approval.

The Starbuck-based agricultural service firm, which has operated a facility for 50 years in the city of Park Rapids, hopes to store fertilizer, feed and seed on a 27.8-acre property at the southwest corner of County Road 48 and County Road 28.

The company recently purchased the land from Todd and Tracy Hughes and had part of it rezoned from agricultural to commercial.

Height variance

The township board of adjustment met first to consider a request by CHS for a variance to the township height requirements, which limit buildings to 35 feet in height.

Scott McKay, the company's agronomy division manager, showed the board diagrams and conceptual drawings of the proposed facility, including a 49-foot-high receiving tower, a 52-foot fertilizer warehouse and a 113-foot blending tower.

During a portion of the meeting open to public comment, neighboring resident Ray Locke suggested these facilities may become an eyesore in a recreational area valued for its natural beauty. He suggested that the township follow the example of the City of Bemidji, which limits buildings to six stories to protect lakeshore views.

McKay replied out CHS already has a 90- to 100-foot tower in Park Rapids, and that a similar agronomy facility is present in most rural communities.

Locke asked whether a need for an aviation beacon, issues with birds, and a lightning risks have been considered. Township planner Bridget Chard said there will be a light on the tower because it is over 100 feet in height, and the Department of Natural Resources has discussed birds with the company. McKay said an electrical engineer is designing a grounding system for the tower.

Larry Odegard raised a concern about weed dust from the facility increasing the weed problems in the lake. McKay said loading and unloading will take place inside the drive-through facility, though Odegard voiced doubts that the doors would always be closed.

Norm Renes noted that DNR firefighting planes take off from the Fishhook Lake after loading up with water, flying low in the direction of the proposed tower. He asked whether this potential problem had been considered. Chard said the DNR had not mentioned it.

While considering findings of fact about the request, on which all questions should receive a majority "yes" vote from members of the board in order for the variance to be granted, the question whether "the plight of the landowner is due to circumstances unique to the property, not created by the landowner" at first received a 2-1 "no" vote, with board members Bob Meier and Keith Mikus initially voting "no." When Chard clarified the question, Meier and Mikus changed their votes to "yes."

The board of adjustment subsequently voted 3-0 to recommend approval of the variance to the township board of supervisors. They agreed to recess the matter until 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 14 for final document review.

Conditional use permit

In a separate meeting, the township planning commission voted 3-0 in favor of CHS Prairie Lakes' request for a conditional use permit (CUP) to build the new agronomy facility.

Chard read into the record a memo from engineer John Bogart with Bogart Pederson & Associates. Bogart suggested requiring a transportation management plan, a stormwater management plan, erosion and sediment control plan, a grading plan and following the advice of the DNR and the Department of Health when dwelling a well.

Locke presented a letter from Lauren Allen, a daughter of Portage Lake landowners majoring in geological engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who plans to work for the Bureau of Land Reclamation. Allen questioned the design of the diked area where loading and unloading is to take place in the facility.

"If a spill does occur, how will the material be removed from the diked area and what will be done with the removed material?" she asked, emphasizing the need for safe water processing. She advised lining the diked area with a geomembrane material or concrete with admixtures to reduce its permeability.

Resident Rick Zeller asked about the CHS procedure for rinsing containers.

Locke advised that concrete driveways and curbs should be required in the CUP. He also urged CHS to increase its charitable contributions in the community in proportion to other businesses, such as RDO and Itasca-Mantrap.

Mark Thomason submitted a concern about water pollution. "I want to be able to drink the water at my house," he said.

Marilyn Branham advised the township to ask CHS to put at least $1 million in a trust account to cover clean-up costs for spills or contamination.

Renes urged that a fire suppression system be required, similar to the sprinklers at RDO-Lamb Weston.

Joyce Weiss suggested planting a "living fence" of trees around the CHS property as a windbreak against dust problems and to conform to neighborhood standards. She also asked that no parking, dumping or buildings be allowed within 100 feet of the property line.

Jeff Cooper, a retired law enforcement officer, said security should be required to prevent theft of any material that could be used for domestic terrorism. His suggestions included a perimeter fence, lockable driveway gates and lighting.

Paul Peterson challenged CHS's claim that it does not deal with anhydrous ammonia or ammonium nitrate, considering their recent investment in a company that produces such chemicals.

Cliff Branham raised a concern about soil type and water drainage at the site. He advised requiring a water retention system and urged the planning commission to study a soil survey report that he provided.

Locke said the presence of the facility will change the essential character of the neighborhood.

Locke and Don Sells both suggested requiring an environmental assessment.

Bill Bond, executive director of the Minnesota Crop Production Retailers trade association, said CHS is a member in good standing in its stewardship program, which is now a nationwide program called Responsible Agriculture. Bond said CHS voluntarily submitted its facilities for third-party compliance audits. He stressed that the new facility will receive regulatory oversight to ensure that it meets environmental standards.

Following closure of public comment, some residents continued to speak up, accusing the commissioners of ignoring their input and challenging their interpretation of CUP criteria.

Nevertheless, the commissioners reviewed all the comments that were submitted during a long, detailed discussion. Many concerns raised by residents were embodied in conditions attached to the permit.

Chard noted the planning commission has no authority to require CHS to donate a given amount to charity.

Regarding fire suppression, no action was taken. McKay said sprinklers are not usually used in CHS facilities because of the risk of flooding the diked area. Instead, they rely on fire alarms, fire extinguishers and annual tours by the local fire department.

Regarding security, no action was taken. McKay said law enforcement agencies typically request that CHS facilities have open driveways and clear visibility from the road to aid in patrols and emergency response.

Regarding a 100-foot setback, Chard said the township's land use districts have uniform requirements for setbacks.

Regarding a trust account for cleanup, Chard noted the city of Park Rapids has never required one, and she did not think the township can do so.

No action was taken regarding ammonium nitrate after McKay maintained that CHS does not handle explosive materials.

Conditions regarding water quality, screening of equipment and product storage areas, lining the diked area with an impermeable material, rinsing procedures, concrete drives and aprons, and Bogart's concerns were attached to the CUP, which the commission recommended to the township board for approval.

The planning commission recessed the matter until 5:30 p.m. on May 14 to review final documents.